To understand the absurd seriousness with which Americans treat higher education, look at their cars. Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers, which trails a Wesleyan admissions officer and six supplicants for places in the class of 2004, documents this magic moment:
A week before his decision was due, he mailed off a $250 deposit and his official response to Wesleyan: a form that had “YES” preprinted in large type at the top. Jordan then went out to his mother’s car and pressed a clear Wesleyan decal against the inside of the back window.
Jordan’s palpable awe was correctly analyzed Paul Fussell, twenty years ago, in Class:
Americans are the only people known to me whose status anxiety prompts them to advertise their college and university affiliations in the rear windows of their automobiles. You can drive all over Europe without once seeing a rear-window sticker reading CHRIST CHURCH or UNIVERSITÉ DE PARIS. A convention in the United States is that the higher learning is so serious a matter that joking or parody are wholly inappropriate… One would sooner defile the flag than mock the sticker or what it represents by, say, putting it on upside down or slantwise, or scratching ironic quotation marks around “College” or “University.” I have heard of one young person who cut apart and rearranged the letters of his STANFORD sticker so the rear window said SNODFART. But the very rarity of so scandalous a performance is significant.
Fussell, notably, does not assign this behavior to a particular class, but to Americans in general. The college decal afflicts uppers, middles, and proles alike. And I sympathize: if I were about to piss away 150 large I might want a souvenir too. Status anxiety being what it is, I see only one answer to the college decal problem: stop sending kids to college.
College, as a phenomenon, has nothing to do with learning. It is possible to educate oneself at Ball State or at Harvard, or alone in one’s room for that matter, like young Jimmy Gatz, studying electricity from 6:15 to 7:15 every morning and needed inventions from 7:00 to 9:00 every night. It is equally possible not to educate oneself at any of those places. I should know: when Harvard turned me down I beat my breast and rent my garments. I then proceeded not to educate myself at my safety school, Carleton College, which served the purpose admirably, just as Harvard would have.
For certain subjects college facilities are useful; it’s tough to learn biology or chemistry without lab work. But Tiffany will be majoring in sociology, and Eustace in political science. They could read Erving Goffman and Tocqueville on their own time, and $150,000, apparently the going rate for four years at a top university, buys a hell of a lot of private tutoring. Perhaps the parents consider the money well-spent if it simply gets the brats out of the house.
No, college is about bragging rights, and seeing to it that your child has the best possible start in life. Children who attend prestigious colleges are understood, correctly, to have more career success. Here, however, we run into a little cause-effect problem. College admissions officers look for good grades and high test scores and a documented record of achievement; employers look for the same things. If no one went to college, or if the bottom went while the top worked instead, would the income disparity, ten years hence, really be any different?
The children themselves dispense with these niceties. Of the six in The Gatekeepers, each, for all of his oft-asserted independence of mind and spirit, decides to attend the most prestigious school he gets into (as determined by the U.S. News rankings, which the schools follow as assiduously as the children). The single exception is a girl who courageously spurns Harvard in favor of Yale.
Steinberg, who graduated Dartmouth in 1988, is not, himself, the best advertisement for the admissions officers of the Ivy League. (I include Wesleyan, which billed itself for a while as “The Alternative Ivy” and is still trying to live it down.) As a writer he is a diligent reporter. His special weakness is for the inconsequential appositive, for “color,” and The Gatekeepers is full of sentences like this: “For Terri, the mother of a ten-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy, the idea of traveling to Asia for five weeks a year on Wesleyan’s behalf seemed like a perfect segue to the nearly three years she had spent in Swaziland for the Peace Corps.” Neither the girl nor the boy nor Swaziland ever reappears, for which, I suppose, a more generous reader would be grateful.
Causation gives Steinberg some trouble. One of the students he follows, Jordan Goldman, connives his way, Steinberg never says quite how, into writing lessons with the distinguished novelist Richard Price. Goldman’s best friend has cerebral palsy and is bound to a wheelchair. Steinberg writes, “In Freedomland Price had created characters based on both boys and made them brothers, because he knew how badly they wished they were brothers in real life.” Cosmic stupidity lurks behind that “because.” Early in the book his admissions officer, Ralph Figueroa, interviews at Goucher College and dislikes it because there’s no decent Mexican food. At the end Steinberg says that Goucher has finally passed “the Tortilla Test,” not by improving the food, but by appointing a Mexican-American dean. You begin to feel a little embarrassed for the guy on the one hand, and to wonder, on the other, what Dartmouth is letting in these days.
Imbecility has its uses, letting Steinberg tell what he sees without noticing that it directly contradicts what he believes. Steinberg and his admissions officer firmly believe in affirmative action, a conviction unshaken by the fact that the two obvious affirmative action admittees, an American Indian to Wesleyan and an inner-city Hispanic to Muhlenberg, both drop out freshman year. Ralph rhapsodizes constantly about the importance of “diversity” at Wesleyan; yet he never seems to encounter anyone, on or off campus, with politics to the right of Howard Dean’s. One applicant “was intrigued that so many students were vocal in support of various political causes,” as Steinberg puts it — I would say coyly, except it does not seem to have occurred to Steinberg that there is more than one kind of political cause.
The Gatekeepers also makes clear what admissions officers really do for a living, during the nine months of the year when they aren’t reading applications. They solicit. Ralph spends months on the road, traveling from high school to high school singing the praises of Wesleyan and encouraging applications that he has every expectation of turning down. More applications means more rejections, which means more “selectivity,” which means a higher rank in U.S. News. Nothing scandalous about that, but nothing edifying either.
Suspiciously little in the way of actual academics seems to go on at any of these colleges — especially Wesleyan, which resembles on Steinberg’s account less an institution of learning than a year-round Burning Man festival — but there is an awful lot of travel. The Cornell girl spends six months in a pueblo in Costa Rica and a month in Rome “to write and draw.” The NYU girl goes to Prague, Jordan Goldman goes to Oxford. Only the Yale girl stays put, leading rallies on behalf of her fellow oppressed Yalies, demanding that all college loans be forgiven. The old aristocratic Grand Tour was more effective and no more expensive.
So parents, that round-the-world cruise that you’ve been promising yourself? The money’s just sitting there, in Junior’s college fund; help yourself. It’s his year abroad or yours.
(Update: Craig Henry points to a study that shows a surprisingly weak link between college selectivity and income. Maybe I was too kind. James Joyner comments. Julie Neidlinger comments.)